The biggest mistake I make when learning languages

When thinking about languages to learn, I often ponder about what I wanted to achieve from the journey, and what I wanted to use the language for. Languages are designed to communicate — verbally or in print and writing, relying on the utterances or graphemes transmitted by the sender or speaker, to be decoded by the listener or reader. While the inner workings of languages are much more complicated than this, it suffices to say that learning a language would require working towards being both a speaker and a listener of the said language.

With this, comes a myriad of ways one could approach when learning a language. Lessons, books, freestyle, all these methods could be tried and tested by the individuals themselves to see which ones work better for them. In fact, some of these methods are rather thoroughly discussed in the post series Method Review. These methods aim to teach the learner how to pronounce stuff, write stuff, read stuff, and things like that. The skills they aim to impart typically include speaking, reading, writing, and listening, with various exercises and passages facilitating them.

Looking back and reflecting on the approaches I used in the past, I realise there was a mistake I had been consistently repeating, potentially impeding and hurting my progress, and worse still, interest, in learning the language. Regardless of methods used, this mistake could be the reason why I encountered a huge obstacle in my third and fourth years of learning Arabic, or why I struggled to attain competencies in the more advanced stages of language learning. And that is, I tend to focus too much on perfecting grammar.

I tend to focus too much on perfecting grammar.

I realised that the first thing I gravitated to was the grammatical patterns in all their shapes and forms, ranging from the simplest of all conjugations, to the toughest in terms of use and applications. These patterns, while enticing due to their regularity or lack thereof, or how these function as building blocks to communicate meaning, have largely distracted me from a more important thing.

Words.

Words that convey what I wanted to do, eat, drink.

Words that convey where I wanted to go, where I come from, where I live.

Words that convey what I like and detest.

Words that communicate.

Me.

It was a severe thing I overlooked in past journeys. What use is a complex grammatical pattern when I did not know the words I wanted to use to convey the meaning?

It was most likely why I fell behind in learning Arabic, for I was too focused on perfecting which pattern to use to form a plural, or which conjugation to use when I wanted to say “she helped”, but without knowing what the Arabic word for “help” was. Maybe it was not as extreme, but this would be a decent example.

Had I diversified my word bank earlier on, I would have built a decent inventory to practice these grammatical patterns on, and actually understand what I was doing. Even so, with imperfect grammar, listeners could get the gist of what is communicated. After all, “This demonstration show [how] machine work” is more communicable than a grammatically perfect “This demonstration shows how this machine works”, only to be interrupted by gaps because maybe the speaker has not learned the words “demonstration” or “machine” in the target language.

Maybe this was the change I needed. To expand my vocabulary to a decent extent, and lessening my focus on grammar. This does not mean that grammar is not important; it is, but one could learn through making grammatical mistakes. I needed to make this change in attitude, to not be afraid of making mistakes, for in the pursuit of perfection, I lost out on perhaps a more important thing.

This mistake was the biggest one I made, and have been making in my language learning experiences. I feel that this is an important one to address, as countless other language learners may be making this mistake right now. For some, this might serve as advice as well. Grammar is not really enjoyable in the grand scheme of things, and is probably what drives people away from learning a language (like, say, Finnish). This change in attitude could alleviate these fears, and could sustain interest in the target language for longer.

Anyway, I hope you have picked up a thing or two through this reflection, and consider applying this to your language learning experiences!

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